In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law. At that time revolutionary environmental laws, such as NEPA and the Clean Water Act, resulted from the consensus that we needed to change the way that our society was doing business.
Back then, America was learning about the effects of indiscriminate pesticide use with DDT and other potent chemicals causing the collapse of bird populations including our national emblem, the bald eagle. In February 1969, an oil spill off Santa Barbara devastated coastal and marine habitats.
Our parents and grandparents knew that we needed to protect our environment not only for the preservation of plants and animals but also because human health was at risk. Our wise relatives knew that public insight into key environmental decisions was of paramount importance.
This summer, the Trump Administration issued a proposed rule that would drastically change the environmental review and public input process for projects in national forests. This proposal would be the biggest rollback of NEPA regulations affecting forest management in over a decade. If enacted, this new rule would allow commercial logging, the conversion of illegal off-road vehicle routes to official U.S. Forest Service roads, and other activities across large swaths of land without preparation of detailed environmental studies and the opportunity for public input.
NEPA principally provides a forum though which the public can comment on the impacts of projects on public lands. Our organizations, Los Padres ForestWatch and the California Native Plant Society, along with thousands of members of the public, routinely comment on projects on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service. These comments are necessary to ensure that projects are the best that they can be.
For example, imagine a project that would use a combination of commercial logging and other vegetation removal in essential habitat for the endangered California condor, proposed as a way to protect local communities from the threat of wildfire. In the case of such a sensitive and challenging endeavor, shouldn’t the U.S. Forest Service welcome the input from scientists and citizens?
Currently, while many projects require a comprehensive environmental review, some activities – like facility and road maintenance, hazard tree removal at campsites, and trail caretaking – are small enough to be exempted under what are known as “categorical exclusions.” These exclusions were initially designed to allow public agencies some leeway in conducting small, non-controversial activities without needing to develop comprehensive environmental documents. Over the years, however, Congress and the U.S. Forest Service itself have added dozens of additional exclusions to create loopholes to avoid environmental review for larger projects.
The Trump Administration is now proposing several new loopholes that would permit massive projects without essential environmental review and public comment. For example, one new loophole would exempt vegetation treatment projects up to 11.5 square miles in size.
The rule would also allow up to 6.5 square miles of commercial logging, mining projects of up to one square mile and the construction of up to five miles of new roads without providing an opportunity for public comment. Most people will not even know about a project until a decision is already made and work is imminent, leaving legal action as the only available recourse.
Projects approved under this loophole will not be subject to a formal appeal or objection mechanism that the public and environmental organizations can use to get the agency to make smart changes to projects after a decision is made. Under the new rule, the public’s only option to modify a project after a decision is made will be to take the agency to court. So, the new rule would likely result in more lawsuits.
Clearly, this is yet another attempt by the administration to chip away at NEPA and limit the public’s role in decisions that affect our public lands. Environmental regulations have been wildly successful in reducing the impact of various activities across our public lands. Rather than whittling away at the regulations that protect wildlife, wild places and even nearby communities, Congress and the administration should provide more funding for the federal agencies so that they can hire scientists and other personnel to conduct meaningful environmental review.
The logging project in California condor habitat is not imaginary. Earlier this year, the U.S. Forest Service used an existing loophole to approve two logging projects in a national forest just north of Los Angeles, totaling 2,800 acres, without full environmental review. The new rules proposed by the Trump Administration would allow projects three times the size of these projects without any public input. The real winners of the proposed rule will be timber companies and NEPA opponents.
With the ever-increasing pace of our urban lives, we all need our National Forest lands for rest and relaxation. We also need these vast landscapes for wildlife, clean air and water, and countless other natural resources.
Preserving, not gutting, NEPA will make sure that these irreplaceable resources are there for future generations to cherish.